Spring 2007

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MERCAZ USA Newsletter — Spring 2007

LCCJ Fights Changes to Law of Return

Facing a concerted effort from the Israeli government, on the one hand, and the Chief Rabbinate, on the other, to prevent extending the benefits of immediate Israeli citizenship to non-Orthodox converts residing in Israel, the Leadership Council of Conservative Judaism has publicly called on Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to repudiate any attempts to change the Law of Return.

In a letter dated December 7th, the LCCJ wrote: "[We] wish to share with you our deep concern regarding the proposed change to the Law of Return... Throughout the years, attempts by the Chief Rabbinate and by Orthodox groups to delegitimize those converted by our Movement either abroad or in Israel have been the source of conflict between Israel and the Diaspora. This is hardly the time to raise this issue once again and to go to such an extreme in denying those who have joined the Jewish people willingly the right to settle in Israel."

At issue is the current case before the Israeli High Court to extend the benefits of the Law of Return to Masorti and Reform converts residing in Israel. While converts who make aliyah from the Diaspora, including those who study in Israel but whose ceremonies are conducted abroad, are qualified to receive immediate Israeli citizenship, the Interior Ministry, fearing an onslaught of petitions from foreign workers seeking permanent Israeli residency, has refused to extend the same benefits to temporary Israeli residents, such as diplomats and students, who enter non-Orthodox conversion programs.

Masorti Blast Conversion Commission

Anticipating a High Court ruling on behalf of the Masorti and Reform converts, both the Israeli government and the Chief Rabbinate recently suggested changes regarding conversion and Israeli citizenship. Thus, at the court's last hearing on the case this past November, the government announced its intention to appoint another "Neeman Commission", similar to the one first set up in the 1990's to deal with the remaining questions regarding conversion in the State of Israel.

In response, Masorti and Reform leaders blasted the announcement of another Neeman Commission as "border[ing] on the ridiculous and [not to] be taken seriously," because of the Chief Rabbinate's refusal to cooperate with the non-Orthodox movements. At the same time, the Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar proposed amending the Law of Return, the legislation that gives the right to immediate Israeli citizenship to those born of a Jewish mother or converted to Judaism.

Since the law does not specify the type of conversion necessary in order to enjoy these rights, the Court has increasingly extended the rights inherent in the Law of Return to all non-Orthodox immigrants to Israel. Rabbi Amar's proposal, therefore, involves excluding converts from the Law of Return and requiring them to acquire Israeli citizenship through a multi-year naturalization process.

The debate regarding the rights of non-Orthodox converts is just one of several current cases before the Israeli High Court aimed at advancing the cause of religious pluralism. Other petitions include the Masorti Movement's suit regarding free entrance to pray at Robinson's Arch and access to publicly funded mikvaot for the purposes of completing conversions.

Masorti Protest "Pay to Pray"

With regards to Robinson Arch, the area at the southern end of the Western Wall, since 2000, this location site has been designated by the government as the proper site in the vicinity of the traditional Kotel for egalitarian prayer services. However, since Robinson's Arch is located within the larger Davidson Archeological Park, a year ago, the tourist center began enforcing the entrance fee of 30 NIS ($7.00) for all visitors who arrive after the formal 8:00 am park opening, including those who simply wish to worship.

As the leaders of the Masorti Movement point out, while all attempts are made to schedule services at Robinson's Arch before 8:00 am, with the revival of Israel's tourist industry, there are simply too many groups, particularly during the peak seasons of Passover, summer and winter vacations, to organize them all before the park's formal opening. As a result, Conservative Jews are being forced to pay for the right to pray. The Court has given the government until February to arrive at a compromise solution with the Masorti Movement over the fee matter.

Similarly, the Court has scheduled for the spring the next hearing regarding access to publicly funded mikvaot for non-Orthodox conversion ceremonies. The Court's decision comes as Rabbi Yitzhak Cohen, the ultra-Orthodox Shas minister who is in charge of religious affairs, dismissed non-Orthodox conversions as "virtual" and thus deserving of only "virtual immersion" in public mikvaot.

As MERCAZ USA President Dr. Stephen S. Wolnek remarked, "While we would prefer our fellow Masorti Jews were able to focus solely on the work of building congregations, it has become clear that political lobbying and legal activism are just as necessary in order to remove the obstacles in the current Israeli reality to full religious freedom for all Jews, as guaranteed in Israel's Declaration of Independence and the Zionist Movement's Jerusalem Program."


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